In the 1990s, during the years just before and just after Cuba’s first Internet connection, I visited the island three times, and wrote several reports and articles on the state of Cuban networking.
Cuba was one of the leading pre-Internet networking nations in the Caribbean. The small community of Cuban networking technicians was like that of other nations at the time. They were smart, resourceful, and motivated. They believed, correctly, that the Internet was important -- that it would have a profound impact on individuals, organizations and society. They were members of the international community of Internet pioneers.
This report is an update of my earlier reports, a study of the state of the Internet in Cuba today. I discovered that remarkably little has changed since those early days. The Cuban Internet has stagnated, while most of the world raced ahead. This left me saddened -- for the optimistic Internet pioneers who were not able to realize their dreams and for the Cuban people who have not enjoyed and profited from the Internet.
I can think of three major causes for this stagnation: the US embargo, the Cuban economy, and the government's fear of information freedom.
The US embargo delayed an undersea cable and made computers, routers, and other equipment expensive and difficult to obtain. Cuban leaders are quick to blame the embargo for their networking problems, but it was only one hurdle.
With or without an embargo, building Internet infrastructure, training a generation of demanding users, building the Internet industry, and developing innovative applications is expensive. Cuba's first Internet connection occurred a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the economy was severely depressed during that "special period." Furthermore, the policies of the Cuban government were hostile to, not encouraging of, foreign investment. Cuba could not afford to develop the Internet.
The third constraint was the government's fear of freedom of speech and communication -- the dictator's dilemma. They were unwilling to risk political instability in order to achieve the benefits of the Internet.
This sad situation is changing. Cuba will soon have an undersea cable. Chinese networking equipment and expertise are world class and, presumably, not effected by the embargo. The political situation in the United States is slowly changing as the revolution fades further into the past. The Cuban leaders are old and will change. Most important, there is a good deal of pent up demand for the Internet among the well-educated Cuban population. The state of the Internet in Cuba
We conducted several studies of Cuban networking in the 1990s, shortly before and again shortly after the transition from store and forward email and news groups to the Internet.1 The studies were organized around the six-dimension Mosaic Group framework for characterizing the state of the Internet in a nation.2 This report is an update of those studies, a survey of the state of the Cuban Internet today, using roughly the same framework. It is organized as follows:
Communication infrastructure – international, domestic and mobile
The Chinese role in building Cuban communication infrastructure
Trained Internet technicians – university computer science
Sectorial absorption and sophistication of use
In the pre-Internet days of twice a day email and network news, Cuba was among the leaders in Caribbean traffic and numbers of users, but the combined effect of the U. S. embargo, Cuban poverty and Cuban government’s fear that the Internet might erode political power and cultural values has crippled the Cuban network, leaving them behind nearly all Latin American and Caribbean nations today.
Appendix 1 shows Internet pervasiveness indicators from Latin America and the Caribbean, as self-reported to the International Telecommunication Union. Cuba is last in fixed broadband Internet subscribers and secure Internet servers.3 Only Belize, Bolivia, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Surinam trail Cuba in Internet users per capita, and Cuba is far below the average for the region (Table 1).
Fixed broadband Internet subscribers (per 100 people)
Internet users (per 100 people)
Secure Internet servers (per million people)
Table , Selected Internet pervasiveness indicators. It should be noted that these figures differ from a survey of 38,000 households conducted by Cuba’s National Statistics Office (ONE) in 2009.4 That survey found that only 2.9 percent of respondents had had direct access to the internet during the previous year.
Some of the discrepancy between the ONE survey and the figures reported to the ITU may be due to inconsistent terminology – it is not clear what “Internet user” means. An Internet user in Cuba or another developing nation is much different than an Internet user in the U. S. or another developed nation. Let us look closer at Cuban user characteristics, using the results of the ONE survey.
As shown in Table 2, the majority of the users surveyed (59.9%) accessed the Internet at school. Access from one’s own home or from another home, which may be a bed and breakfast hotel, accounts for another 21.5% and access at public places – Youth Computer Clubs (YCC) and post offices account for 7.4% as does access at work. (The majority of this public access is at YCCs. The post offices have only 299 computers in 54 locations while the YCCs have 8,626 computers in 607 locations).5
Another person’s home
Youth Computer Club
Table , Internet access location (percent). In a developed nation, people typically access the Internet from many fixed locations – home, work, school, WiFi hotspots, libraries, and so forth, and since the introduction of the Apple iPhone, mobile access has grown far faster than any previous Internet technology.6 As we see in Table 3, Cubans who use the Internet do so infrequently. This is because Internet use is expensive and slow, making most network based applications and modern Web sites unusable.
Table , Internet access frequency (percent). The survey also found that 5.8 percent of respondents had used email during the previous year, and, as we see in Table 4, email is used primarily at work. The rate of email use is twice that of Internet use in Cuba. Few users in a developed nation restrict their Internet access to email.
Hotel, Youth Club, etc.
Table , Internet access frequency (percent). Other recent data from the ONE gives further insight into the nature of Cuban Internet access. We see in Table 5 that people share computers.7
Number of computers
Computers on the Internet
Users per computer
Table , Internet computers and users (thousands). ONE reports that there are currently 3.5 users per Internet-connected computer, and the number of users is growing more rapidly than the number of Internet-connected computers (Figure 1).
Figure , Users sharing computers.
Content and activity filtering and surveillance also constitute a form of access limitation. Table 6 shows content and activity limitations at various types of access location as reported by an anonymous source.8
Our source reported that Cubans are now allowed Internet access in hotels if they are able to afford the time charges.
The AvilaLink “information management” program is widely deployed in locations where there are multiple computers.9 It can selectively filter Web sites and functions, monitor time for billing, and log activity for surveillance. In addition to being limited in access and application, a Cuban user is often aware that logs may be kept of the sites they visit and their communication may be monitored. This would be intimidating and restrict the user experience.
Access is also curtailed by cost, which, as we see below, is very high relative to Cuban income levels and international norms. If someone does not have access at work or school, they may be unable to afford it elsewhere, and, even if they do have access at school or work, they are restricted in what they are authorized to do online.
Finally, network speed severely limits Internet application. As we see below, the majority of Internet users have dial-up modems and international connectivity is limited to slow, low-capacity satellite links. Even if everyone in Cuba had a modern computer and access was unfettered and free, the outdated network would limit them to the sorts of applications we were running fifteen years ago.
In spite of the above limitations on Internet access and the possibility of surveillance, there is significant informal and technically illegal Internet use in Cuba. Ironically, the most sophisticated users of the Internet might be the globally visible Cuban blogging community which is often critical of the government, and users of websites like Revolico.com, a classified advertising website for Cubans, which is similar to Craigslist and hosted in Spain.10 Let us look more closely at the example of Revolico.
The Cuban government blocks access to Revolico, but motivated users circumvent the restriction. The Cuba Study Group considers Revolico to be “one of the best examples of uncensored information exchange between Cubans,” and estimates that they get 8,000 unique visits per day.11 Furthermore, many of the website’s users are willing to advertise technically illegal items like international email addresses, Internet usage time, and electronic devices that are only recently legal.
The Democracy Council has observed Revolico for nearly a year.12 At the time of their first snapshot, in early 2010, they found 3,000 email addresses of people advertising goods and services. They mined the site for email addresses every two weeks thereafter, discovering an average of 2,700 new addresses each month. While some users listed fictitious email addresses and supplied telephone numbers for actual contact. In eleven months, they accumulated approximately 30,000 unique, valid email addresses.
Revolico demonstrates the existence of a substantial community of informal Internet users who are not afraid to engage in black market activity, including the sale of illegal items, on a blocked site. These informal users are uncounted in government reports or the survey we described above.
To be an “Internet user” in Cuba is not the same as being an “Internet user” in a nation where people have their own (or several) computers with persistent, high-speed Internet connections. The difference is qualitative – the applications are different as is the impact of the Internet on individuals, organizations and society.
Geographic Dispersion In 1998, we noted that Cuba's network, while very small and slow, was more geographically dispersed than those in many emerging nations.13,14 Two of Cuba's primary internal networks, Infomed (serving the health care community) and Tinored (serving the YCCs and NGOs), were spread throughout the island. Infomed was in every provincial capital and Tinored in nearly every municipality (approximately 160 locations). As sparse as Cuban connectivity was, it was relatively dispersed by the standards of developing nations at the time, as illustrated in Table 7, which summarized the situation in Africa at that time.
Number of nations
IP in capital only
IP in second city
IP nationwide (local dial up)
Table , African Connectivity, 1998.
Serving rural communities and areas outside of Havana remains a priority today, but progress is difficult given the state of the economy. Appendix 2 shows ICT indicators by province in 2007, and Figure 2 shows that Internet access is concentrated in Havana.